On the 5th of February, more than a century ago, the American film industry changed forever. A production studio called “United Artists” (UA) was established in 1919 by actual artists rather than businessmen. Filmmakers and actors like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks banded together in order to ensure that artists had control over their own interests and the financial security to do what they envisioned.
Since cinema was still in its early stages, people had no idea what this phenomenon would turn out to be. Feature-films were in their infancy; urging filmmakers and studios to experiment with the cinematic medium to figure out what the market actually wanted. More extended features were being made to test the voyeuristic inclinations of the audience, like D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which was groundbreaking for its time with a runtime of more than three hours. Although modern audiences can criticise the film for its blatant racism (as it should be criticised), the $110,000 experiment was a successful one because it had recouped $5.2 million by 1919. However, it was the investors controlling most of the finances and the creative forces behind the films did not have much say in these matters. When the likes of Chaplin, Pickford and Fairbanks could not manage to get the kind of contracts they wanted from the authoritarian studios, they decided that enough is enough. It was time to act, and their statement of purpose was:
“We think that this step is positively and absolutely necessary to protect the great motion picture public from threatening combinations and trusts that would force upon them mediocre productions and machine-made entertainment.”
United Artists was founded on a framework of artistic idealism, imagining a world where independent producers and creative agencies could finance their projects without having to deal with the enterprising studio moguls who capitalised on the talents of other people. Since the company decided against trading its stocks to the public, United Artists had to rely on weekly revenue from theatre owners who were going to present their films. The initial output was very slow when compared to the standards of the time, churning out five features a year for the first five years.
Apprehension and doubts clouded the venture because nobody actually believed they would be able to pull it off. Richard A. Rowland, head of Metro Pictures, scoffed when he heard of their plans and allegedly remarked: “The inmates are taking over the asylum,” he supposedly stated. There was some success at the start, thanks to the individual artists who drew audiences to the theatres. Films such as Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro, Pickford’s Pollyanna, Chaplin’s The Gold Rush and Griffith’s Broken Blossoms were box office successes and provided proof that such a venture might just work, but it wasn’t to be.
Distribution companies like RKO and Universal Pictures snagged many of United Artists’ distribution deals, and Griffith dropped out. At one point, there were talks that Gone with the Wind would be distributed through United Artists which could change their fortunes. David O. Selznick went with MGM instead because he wanted Clark Gable who was under MGM’s contract. The company slowly started losing money in the 1940s, due to the increasing popularity of television and their lacklustre outputs.
By the 1950s, most of the founders had sold their shares of the company and a new period in the company’s history was ushered in. Under the guidance of lawyer-turned producers Arthur B. Krim and Robert S. Benjamin, UA became profitable by the end of the decade. Iconic works like High Noon (1952), The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The West Side Story (1961) were being financed and distributed by the first studio which did not even have an actual “studio” because it had been sold when it was experiencing financial instability.
By 1958, UA was making an unprecedented $3 million a year right after it went public in 1957. UA became a subsidiary of the TransAmerica Corporation in 1967 and continued to produce critical and commercial successes throughout the 1970s, including masterpieces like Midnight Cowboy (1969), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Rocky (1976) and Annie Hall (1977). However, executive disputes and the catastrophic production-failure of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate led to the downfall of United Artists, and it was ultimately purchased by the parent company of MGM in 1981 for around $350 million.
In recent years, the company has become a model for a successful film production company. Since the 2000s, it has produced arthouse-inclined films like Bowling for Columbine (2002), Hotel Rwanda (2005) and Capote (2006). On the 100th anniversary of its conception, the joint distribution venture between MGM and Annapurna Pictures was renamed as United Artists Releasing as a tribute to the company’s inspiring origins.
Over the course of a century, the initial vision of Chaplin, Pickford, Griffith and Fairbanks turned into something different altogether. Their dream of independent artists having the finances to do what they wanted to do proved to be unsustainable in a highly-competitive framework where films are not made for the progress of art forms but to satisfy the demands of the market.